The Black Knights return home this week following a tough three-game road trip. I said before the season that I would be delighted if the team somehow finished the first part of this season 3-2, but after Army knocked off Temple in Week 1, expectations changed. Now we’re back, and the team is indeed 3-2, but it feels like the season has opened with some disappointment. I don’t know that this is necessarily fair. Yes, Army dropped a pair of winnable games, but they have also shown obvious improvement. We still have a young team, but they are definitely moving in the right direction.
This week, the Black Knights are back at Michie Stadium for the Homecoming game, and it’s become a game in which they badly need to reestablish their dominance and their identity.
The Army Black Knights
To paraphrase Coach Jeff Monken in a recent interview on satellite radio, “When you’re a freshman or a sophomore, you just want to play. It’s not until you get to be a junior or a senior that you really start to take ownership of the team.” This is worth reiterating because we knew coming into the season that Army had a young team. They’ve played with a lot of heart and a lot of emotion, and as is liable to happen, they’ve been inconsistent because of it. Some days they channel lightning and play like world-beaters. Some days they lose focus and make mistakes. This has been true at every point on the field except linebacker, the only spot on the entire roster where Army has significant veteran leadership. Army’s linebackers have been excellent, and indeed, I think that they show what this team is becoming, though I think it’s safe to say that the team as a whole has a ways to go.
In some ways, it’s a shame that Army had to play Duke in a hurricane. The Blue Devils have been good against the run this year, and because they play Georgia Tech in-conference, they’re familiar with the triple-option. They run blitz, get penetration in the middle of the line, and string out the option-pitch very effectively. Army really only had success running the fullback to the outside, between the guard and the tackle, and with the quarterback keeper. Duke’s secondary is young, however, and like a lot of teams, Army needed to throw to exploit this weakness. With the hurricane, that didn’t happen. Notwithstanding the air ball that ended the game, I thought throwing was a necessary evil, but the conditions were very tough. I will say, however, that I’ve become a big fan of Army’s short passing game. They’ve been doing a good job of getting the ball to the slotbacks in space, and that has made a tremendous difference when it’s worked. I wish they worked this into the game plan more, even at the cost of shots down the field.
On the flipside, Army’s defense has been excellent. The linebacking corps was particularly good in hurricane conditions, when Duke’s passing game become a non-factor. Army gave up one long pass for a touchdown, but after a miserable first half, they held Duke to virtually no yardage whatsoever, and they forced a few turnovers. Time and again, we’ve seen this group shut the middle of the field down, forcing even very good running teams to try something else. I still think Army’s secondary is vulnerable in one-on-one coverage down the field and on the outside, but when the linebackers can get pressure on the quarterback, even this becomes less of an issue.
Really, we just need the offense to hold onto the ball, make good pitches, and get push along the offensive line. They looked great for three weeks but struggled at Buffalo and against Duke, too. Whatever adjustments teams have made to slow down the Fullback Dive, it’s time for Army to make counter-adjustments. One that’s worked has been moving the hole for the dive outside between the guard and the tackle. Unfortunately, I think Army is also going to have to continue working that short passing game to continue loosening defenses up as well. QB Ahmad Bradshaw currently sits at 12/29 passing (41.4%) for 204 yards and 1 interception. That needs to improve, time now."It was a good team we faced and frankly we are glad to have a game this weekend. Hopefully we can come back to play well against Lafayette"— Army WP Football (@ArmyWP_Football) October 11, 2016
That said, I sympathize with Coach Monken’s desire to burn last week’s game tape and move forward. What exactly can you learn from losing by seven in a hurricane?
The Lafayette Leopards
I don’t want to belabor the point, but Lafayette is not a very good team. Though this game comes at a point in the season in which Army needs to rebuild its confidence and get back to basics, the truth is that this should have been the first game of the season. This should have been Army’s get-right game before that long three-game road trip. As it was, Army pulled out a win in fine fashion against Temple, but had that not worked, Black Knights fans would be rightly furious with this year’s schedule design.
Fordham’s Chase Edmonds rushed for 359 yards and 4 TDs on just 17 carries (21.1 yards/carry) against the Leopards last week. That set a new Fordham school record, and it came against a conference foe. When considering this, remember that Fordham has had a football team just long as Army; Vince Lombardi himself played his college ball for the Rams. Edmonds’s school record puts him into some very fine company.
Worse yet, Lafayette allowed the Rams to gain more than 700 yards of total offense. The Leopards started strong but couldn’t keep the pace as their defense was slowly got run out of the building. This happened in a game in which the Leopards actually won time-of-possession by almost five minutes! The one bright spot for Lafayette was QB Blake Searfoss, who went 25/41 passing (61.0%) for 325 yards and 1 TD, including a 65-yard bomb to WR Joey Chenoweth.
Granted, one game doesn’t tell the tale of an entire season, but Lafayette has been outscored 196-137 since the start of the year, all in the FCS. That gives them an expected winning percentage of just 33% heading into by far their toughest game so far.
What's the key for @LafColFootball at Army this weekend? @WatchLSN's Quinlan Moore takes you inside today's presser: https://t.co/RHWTUfIH7e— Lafayette Athletics (@GoLeopards) October 11, 2016
Here’s the reality: Army needs to truck these guys on the ground right from the start. The Black Knights need to set the tempo, establish that the Leopards have no shot, and then pound the ball relentlessly in the middle of the field. If Lafayette can give up 500 yards rushing to Fordham, they ought to give up 800 yards to Army. What’s important in a game like this is to not let the other guy think he has a chance. Army needs to get out there and establish immediately that the Leopards are in for a long day. They ought to have the tools to get that done.
On the other side of the ball, I like this match-up because it’s going to force Army to play coverage against a team that can move the football in the air. For once, however, Army should be fully competitive with its young cornerbacks. I’d like to see Coach Monken put those kids on an island one-on-one, and I’d like to see CBs Marcus Hyatt and Elijah Riley get some turnovers. They need to establish themselves heading into the second half of the season. Army’s going to face some teams that can really throw the ball going forward, and it’s not always going to get good pressure. This is a game in which Army’s secondary needs to work its systems and get-right heading into the meat of the season.
As of this writing, we’re expecting sunny skies with a high in the low- to mid-60s. I’m in Albany this week, and we’re just entering Leaf Season. West Point ought to be beautiful on Saturday. For what it’s worth, I ran yesterday in shorts and a t-shirt. I put Pandora’s Running Radio on in my earbuds, and really, it was as nice a day as I’ve ever seen in Upstate New York. Today has been just as good, weatherwise.
Since this is an Army home game, it will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network. Kickoff is at noon. I’ll be at the game with my wife and some friends, and since it’s sold out, I expect it’s going to be a zoo trying to get in to park. If you’re going, I strongly advise getting there early.
Go Army! Beat Lafayette!!!